Pushing against the glass ceiling: Arab women in Israeli local politics

In Israel, the representation of women in local politics is extremely low. Despite numerous initiatives to promote gender equality, Israeli women still face enormous challenges in running for office, and this issue is especially apparent in Arab communities.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I had the opportunity to attend a special event in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, with staff members of The Abraham Fund Initiatives (TAFI). Organized by the Mekomiyot coalition 2018, a non-partisan coalition of Jews and Arabs, and in cooperation with the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, the gathering was focussed on the need to change the reality in local government and promote greater representation of women in the local authorities in Israel.

The event was held in the light of the upcoming Israeli municipal elections this October. Speakers addressed the already made progress, the never-ending need for change, and the opportunities lying ahead of us. In line with Mekomiyot’s understanding that only a joint move and pooling of resources will bring more women to the table, the gathering furthermore included the signing of a charter that called for the inclusion of women on party lists by a handful of Members of Knesset (MKs).

The only group that was missing at this collaborative event were men. Although Mekomiyot stressed the importance of including both women and men, the gender demographic of the event itself showed otherwise – only four men were present. Nevertheless, the Jewish and Arab women did a good job at moving the agenda forward. Besides some strong female speakers, the four-headed concluding panel addressed some very important issues, and their general message came across loud and clear. As women, they explained, we have to stop thinking we have to be perfect; not all elected men are superman after all. Or to put it more directly: “GAYA!” (גם את יכולה היום) – “Also you can do it today!”

Ola Najami-Yusef (r), Director of Leadership Initiatives at The Abraham Fund, with MK Aida Touma-Suleiman, the Chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.

In some communities this however proves more difficult than in others. The unequal number of men and women in local elected office is the highest in Arab society. Not only do Arab women suffer the discrimination of their own community, in which “a women’s place” is at home and participation in public life is often actively discouraged, but as part of the Arab minority they also face neglect from Israeli institutions. This dual disadvantage has severely restricted Arab women’s ability to access the rights promised to them in Israeli law, making it difficult to run for office.

The long-term effects of discrimination and misrepresentation of women in the public sphere should not be underestimated. Not only are women being seen as less qualified for the job, but they believe it themselves as well. At the event in the Knesset, a place where you would expect more attention for the underlying causes of inequality, both male and female speakers mainly ascribed the absence of women in local politics to a lack of agency, while leaving their limited opportunities unaddressed.

Luckily, practical measures are being taken. After having witnessed a decreasing trend of voter participation among Arab citizens in 2013, a survey by TAFI showed that seeing more women and young people as candidates on the party lists would increase Arab voters’ belief in the democratic process. Following these findings, TAFI launched The Arab Leadership program, a unique and innovative program designed to stimulate public activity of Arab young adults and women. By creating access to both a leadership skill-building course and a graduate network, participating Arab women now don’t only stay engaged in the political process and community development after the program, but also gain an important amount of confidence to engage in political activities.

This opportunity for women to integrate into public policy and decision making fields is of extreme importance for the future of Arab communities. Better and more equal participation of women in local authorities will allow for their voices to be heard and for the local authority composition to be a better representative of its voting public. In the long run, I believe that better engaged citizens and a more representative and participatory democratic process will provide a platform for better communication between Jewish and Arab leaders under the same agenda.

With The Arab Leadership Program, TAFI presents a successful example of addressing gender inequality in Arab communities. In order to realize the challenging dreams of democracy and equal opportunity for all, more action is however needed. Unless Arab women are provided the right tools and confidence, they will be unable to hammer through the thick glass ceiling.

About the Author
Originally from Holland, Milou moved to Israel two years ago after finishing her Bachelor’s degree in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She is a recent graduate of the Master’s program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University, and also volunteered as program advisor for the African Refugee Development Center. Driven by her passion for public policy and cross-cultural communication, she currently interns at The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit organisation that strives to fulfil the promise of full and equal citizenship and rights for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.
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